Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper void of all characters, without any ideas. How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE.
— John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689
A product of 17th-century England, John Locke was probably more of a bare-knuckle boxing fan. Maybe he laid a wager on a few illicit cricket matches here or there. Regardless, he had what appear to be some pretty strong feelings about, as far as I can tell, whether college football prepares players for the NFL. He seemed to think pro experience was more important and that college basically creates a “white paper void.”
At least, that’s how I’m choosing to interpret it. I’m betting a lot of NFL scouts and coaches interpret it the same way.
We know how hard it is to put yourself in position to nab a franchise quarterback. Teams frequently freak out and trade their life savings for a top pick — someone might indeed do that at this week’s NFL draft — even though that really doesn’t work any better than anything else.
But are franchise QBs found ... or created?
In last week’s piece on franchise QBs, I referred to some of the best signal callers of the 2010s and the unorthodox ways that teams used to find them — mid- or late-round draft picks (or non-picks), injury-based free agency, etc. They were all diamonds ready to be mined. But could other QBs have thrived in similar positions?
Let’s again use Tom Brady as the ultimate example.
One year into his pro career, Brady had proven nothing. Coming off of a Michigan career that saw him post decent but unspectacular stats for two straight years — around a 61 percent completion rate, 7.5 yards per attempt, about a 135 college passer rating — he was a draft afterthought. He had done a nice job in the 2000 preseason, completing 22 of 32 passes and engineering a last-second drive against the Lions to set up a game-winning Adam Vinatieri field goal. (Hmm. That sounds familiar.) But as the season approached, most of the QB snaps went to incumbent Drew Bledsoe and primary backup John Friesz.
In the regular season, Bledsoe threw 521 passes, Friesz threw 21, and third-stringer Michael Bishop threw nine to Brady’s three.
In the 2000-01 offseason, the Pats released Friesz and brought in Damon Huard, who had started six games for the Dolphins in 1999-00, on a three-year deal. It appeared it would be Brady vs. Bishop vs. Huard for the second-string spot, and Huard was the presumptive favorite.
Brady bulked up a bit in the offseason, per team request, and completed 57 percent of his passes in the preseason, generating a 91.9 pro passer rating to Huard’s 63.3. He was proving pretty good at avoiding mistakes and making safe plays, and Huard most certainly was not. That gave Brady the slightest of edges.
So entering his second season in the pros, Brady had proven only that he was better than Michael Bishop and slightly better than Damon Huard. And when Bledsoe got hurt against the Jets in Week 2 — leave it to the Jets to kick-start a Patriots’ dynasty — Brady came in and was asked to play things safe.
Brady completed just 53 percent of his passes in his first three games, and while he caught fire briefly, engineering a late comeback win over San Diego and completing 16 of 20 for 202 yards in a win over an Indianapolis, he was extremely sack-prone, getting dragged down on more than 11 percent of his pass attempts over the second half of the season and averaging only 5.8 yards per pass attempt (including sacks).
New England was winning games and putting itself in position to make the playoffs namely because of its defense. That trend continued in the playoffs, as the Pats allowed just 15.7 points per game, and Brady got away with averaging just 9.5 yards per completion and 5.3 net yards per attempt.
His brilliant drive at the end of Super Bowl XXXVI was memorable, but it wasn’t necessarily a star turn. Even as he made himself a starter, he didn’t become a top-10 QB per Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt until his fifth season out of college and didn’t break through to No. 1 until his eighth.
He was obviously good at first, but he was merely good.
The Pats ranked 14th in Offense DVOA and second in Defense DVOA when they went 14-2 and won the Super Bowl in 2003. His stats began to surge in 2004, during their third title run.
Tom Brady’s career stats
Brady eventually became Touchdown Tom, but how much of that was because of his skill and tenacity, and how much was because of the opportunity and coaching attention he received?
There was obviously something in Brady all along, but it took a long time to come out. How many other prospects could have produced something similar given similar circumstances and time?
I mean, just think about the number of different places where this could have gone wrong. What if Bledsoe doesn’t get hurt against the Jets? Or what if he gets hurt in the second-to-last week of the season instead of the second week, thereby limiting the size of Brady’s audition? That was only his age-29 season — he would go on to start four more seasons in the NFL with teams other than the Pats.
What if the Pats sign a backup better than Huard? That same offseason, Tony Banks, Doug Flutie, Jamie Martin, Elvis Grbac, and even future Brady-beating Super Bowl coach Doug Pederson all changed teams. What if one of them came aboard and showed well for a couple of weeks in August?
Or, hell, flip that around the other way. What if the Pats had indeed selected Tim Rattay instead of Brady in 2000, as rumored? He ended up starting parts of four seasons in San Francisco and Tampa Bay, and he even had a better ANY/A average than Brady in 2003 (albeit in only 125 pass attempts). Couldn’t he have beaten out Bishop and maybe Huard? And, given the Brady script — make safe throws, play things conservatively, and let your defense make big stops — might he have been able to guide the Pats to the playoffs in 2001 and cement his own legacy? Never count out Touchdown Tim?
It’s not just quarterbacks, of course.
What happens when the Quincy Enunwas of the world break through?
When a late-round guy proves himself a steal, is that because he was a diamond in the rough, or he simply got a chance?
Enunwa, a receiver out of Nebraska, produced decent-at-best statistics while catching passes from Taylor Martinez and Tommy Armstrong Jr. at Nebraska. The Jets picked him 209th in the 2014 draft, thanks more to the combination of a 6’2, 225-pound frame and a 4.41 40 time more than any on-field exploits.
Enunwa caught just 22 passes in his first two seasons, but when Eric Decker got hurt in 2016, Enunwa moved into a larger role and thrived, catching 58 balls for 857 yards and improving his catch rate from 48 percent in 2015 to 55 percent. He wasn’t exactly running routes for Tom Brady, either — Ryan Fitzpatrick and Bryce Petty threw most of New York’s passes that year.
Thanks to Enunwa, the Jets cut Decker in the 2016-17 offseason. (This being the Jets, however, Enunwa immediately got hurt himself and missed the 2017 season, while Decker caught 54 passes for the Titans, a playoff team.)
You don’t need stats to know that some guys are more talented and athletic than others. It wasn’t a mystery why A.J. Green and Julio Jones were picked in the top 10 in 2011, for instance, and Ronald Johnson and Ryan Whalen were sixth-rounders. But the separation still isn’t all that great, and in a lot of cases, all the lower-rung guys need is a chance and some guidance. Not just anyone would be capable of what Enunwa has produced, but some others would be.
What does this mean for a team’s draft philosophy?
This draft cycle has seen a more distilled, intense version of the old “scouts vs. nerds” narrative that forms each year. That’s mostly because of Josh Allen, the ultimate template for the battle between “he’s got every tool!” and “my god, his stats are terrible.” But while it’s not always this magnified, there’s always tension between what a guy has proven he can do and what he might do under the right guidance.
Stats might not tell us an entire story, but they can pretty clearly drop hints regarding a prospect’s ceiling. Still, if franchise QBs are made, not found, then maybe it’s more rational than I want to believe that drafting a toolsy, supposedly high-ceiling prospect like Allen high in the draft? (Or, at least, the version of Allen with merely mediocre stats, not absolutely atrocious stats ... so, Josh Rosen.)
We sometimes laugh at the coaches and scouts who go into full “We can fix him” mode and who ignore obvious flaws because of upside, but maybe there’s something to nurture trumping nature? And maybe the idea should be to focus on prospects like Brady in the later round, guys who you could say proved a pretty high floor in college, even while failing to hint at a high ceiling? Maybe?
Getting drafted at or near the top of the draft will benefit Allen in certain ways. Guys who get picked that high will get more direct coaching and more opportunities to prove themselves. That combination could actually produce something Allen potentially wouldn’t become as a big-armed, no-name prospect on whom someone takes a flier in the sixth round.
Maybe Allen can be taught to better read defenses, to better plant his feet to avoid making awful throws on easier passes. Maybe his drastic weaknesses can be shored up enough to allow him to take advantage of that big arm. Even if he doesn’t become a star (and the odds are strongly against that), the extra guidance could ease him toward competence and allow him to stay in the league longer.
It didn’t work for Kyle Boller, or Jamarcus Russell, or Jake Locker, or other Good In Shorts QBs, but the coaching at the NFL level is tremendous, and it could end up making a difference. It probably won’t, but it could.
And for the guys at the bottom of the draft, or those who go undrafted, if a Drew Bledsoe or Eric Decker gets hurt, maybe they’ll be able to take advantage of the opportunities they get, too.
For some, nature creates opportunities for nurture. For others, they have to luck their way into it. Or hope that the Damon Huard above them has a bad fall camp.